Soccer-Arsenal's title hopes hit with 2-0 loss to Villa as Man City get boost


Soccer Football - Premier League - Arsenal v Aston Villa - Emirates Stadium, London, Britain - April 14, 2024 Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs

LONDON (Reuters) -Arsenal's Premier League title push was hit by late goals from Aston Villa's Leon Bailey and Ollie Watkins as they suffered a surprise 2-0 home defeat on Sunday to hand the initiative to leaders and defending champions Manchester City.

Villa substitute Bailey tapped home from close range in the 84th minute before Watkins' sublime finish three minutes later sent Gunners fans streaming for the exits.

Arsenal's loss, their first in 12 league games, leaves them in second place, two points behind City and level on points with third-placed Liverpool with six games left to play.

"We knew that this moment could come and now it's about reacting and keep believing and doing what we can," Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta told reporters.

"Now is the moment to stand up, as a leader, as a character, to make yourself count. When you win and win and win for four months, it's very, very simple to do it. The moment is now."

Following Liverpool's 1-0 defeat at home to Crystal Palace earlier on Sunday, the weekend belonged to City who bolstered their chances of an unprecedented fourth straight league title with a 5-1 demolition of visiting Luton Town on Saturday.

Opta now give City a 70% chance of winning the Premier League, with Arsenal on just over 18% and Liverpool nearly 12%.

Arteta said his side's trip to Bayern Munich in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final tie, after a 2-2 draw in midweek, was "a beautiful opportunity" to respond.

The win boosts fourth-placed Villa's chances of qualifying for next season's Champions League and moves them three points above Tottenham Hotspur, albeit having played a game more.

UNDER PRESSURE

Villa weathered pressure in the first half, with Kai Havertz shooting straight at goalkeeper Emi Martinez before Gabriel Jesus and Bukayo Saka hit the side-netting as an opening goal for the Gunners' felt like an imminent inevitability.

"We had one of the best performances in the first half that we had this season by far ... it should have been three or four or more," Arteta said.

Villa went closest, however, when Watkins' effort bounced off one post and narrowly wide of the other, while Youri Tielemans's rasping effort hit the bar then the post and somehow stayed out as the visitors improved markedly after the break.

Bailey gave Villa the lead when he turned in Lucas Digne's dangerous cross before Watkins broke Arsenal hearts with a beautiful chip over keeper David Raya to settle the contest.

The goal was Watkins' 19th in the league, which with his 10 league assists puts him behind only Bayern Munich's Harry Kane and Paris St Germain's Kylian Mbappe for goal involvements in Europe's top five leagues this season.

"It's massive to come away to Arsenal when they are playing such good football and to play like that just shows where we are going really, it was a perfect away performance," England striker Watkins told Sky Sports.

Villa manager Unai Emery, who has repeatedly played down the prospects of his side qualifying for Europe's elite club competition, accepted they are now contenders for the top four.

"We prepared this match really as a very difficult match, but a great opportunity to try to get three points," he told reporters.

(Reporting by Sam Tobin; additional reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Ken Ferris)

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